Unsurprisingly, Suri kind of freaks out after I ‘accidentally conjure myself a Dreamscape’ for the second time. She asks lots of questions and I provide vague, hopefully unsuspicious answers until she runs out of steam.
Still, her concern with the whole situation clearly ticks up a notch and her efforts to keep my Espir low become even greater. I don’t want to spook her too much, so I reluctantly decide to postpone my next visit for a while, in part to make the timing seem random and not deliberate on my part.
I gotta play the long game. Patience is key.
Three days pass, including three nights of temperings. On the Yin side, that means two temperings for Alec and one for me, that I spend tempering Cold for the second time. Now it’s my turn to temper again, and we decide it’s time.
Today, we hunt for a Major Toxic Energy Crystal.
Tonight, I level up.
Twinrise sees me sitting on the steps outside the hut I share with Kaitlynn, holding a garden gnome. With a sigh, I toss it onto the pile of random conjured objects in the sand next to me.
This is my new morning routine, by Suri’s insistence. I only stop when my Espir is suitably low. Low enough that losing any more would make me feel lethargic.
At least it’s good practice, even if conjuring all of these memories from Earth tends to put me in a weird, nostalgic mood.
On a whim, I finish by conjuring a hotdog. I stare at it for a moment. It just reminds me of Josh, which leads my mind to the horror that was Hub 1.
About 3000 people got portalled there. There’s only like 19 of us left...
Shaking my head, I toss it on the pile. “Status Window, please.”
I look over my numbers in satisfaction. My Cold Tolerance is coming along nicely, and other than that, I have not been idle.
The other day we decided to skip hunting and train. I had the feeling my body was acclimatized to my new Strength and was ready for me to improve it once more, so I went all out swimming circles around our island until I raised my Strength.
On the days we did hunt, we hunted a lot. Dave and I even took out two more anglerfish. They’re actually not all that difficult to deal with now that we know what we’re up against. As soon as my spear goes in for Infuse, they’re pretty much done for. All in all, we’ve hunted for everything but Heat and Toxic Crystals by now. We’ll have to hit the corner with Heat Crystals tomorrow, to get a Minor Heat Crystal for Kaitlynn’s fourth tempering.
Speaking of Kaitlynn, I still can’t believe I managed to raise my Willpower by resisting, well, her. Not that it’s changed things between us. If anything, our now nightly make-out sessions have gotten more intense, and are steadily progressing towards heavy petting.
Despite that—or perhaps because of it—we still haven’t really talked.
Just the idea of giving up this exhilarating thing between us makes my stomach drop.
Anyway, I’ve been studying the Purpose of the Toxic Energy inside the Honey-Yam Mead—turns out it’s called Addling—and just yesterday managed to level up Infuse by figuring out how to produce it myself. In celebration, I teamed up with Alec to make a kind of wine out of freshly squeezed Zirot juice.
Which might explain why I let Kaitlynn get to second base yesterday. She was like a kid at Christmas; she really seems to have a thing for my—
Finally, I made some excellent progress with Distort Space during my last tempering, and I can now stretch and squeeze my boundaries in two dimensions simultaneously.
It’s kind of like going cross-eyed, but trying to still see sharp. Except I can actually pull it off, which feels weird yet satisfying.
With this, I’ve unlocked three new forms. I call them Flat Dwarf Emma, Thin Dwarf Emma, and my personal favourite: Slenderwoman. That last one scares the shit out of Alec, which is absolutely hilarious.
While I accomplished all of this, the rest haven’t been sitting still either, of course.
First of all, they’ve all had their Mental Fortitude raised by at least one from special training in resisting my Dreamcloud Energy—which incidentally also provides them small gains in Toxic Energy Tolerance! Unfortunately, my own Toxic Energy Tolerance is now so high that it’s hard for me to produce enough Dreamcloud Energy to affect me personally, so I’m still looking for a way to increase my own Mental Fortitude. If I can just figure out how to increase the length of my Visits to the Realm of Imagination, that would probably kill two birds with one stone.
Kaitlynn had her third tempering for Heat, and her breath attack is getting scary. She’s more of a dragon than I am, at this point. She also managed to gain Meditation level 2 during her last tempering, a Skill we gave renewed priority after I succeeded in gaining Increase Momentum thanks to Calyx’s martial arts demonstration.
Dave gained Meditation level 3, and Alec finally made some progress with Regeneration, managing to bring it to level 2. He can now send his Lavi to work on a specific part of his body, instead of just stimulating the regenerative abilities all over. It allows for the proper healing of deeper wounds and more complex injuries, though it seems like he’ll need the third level to pull off something as complicated as regrowing his eye. Still, it’s an important step towards that goal.
I need to get on his ass about finding a way to communicate his experience with the Skill to us, because I definitely want to gain at least the first level before we head out of this Hub and lose the safety net of Dave’s Restore. I’d really like Kaitlynn to learn it too, but she’ll probably need to gain Meditation level 3 first.
I should help her out with that sometime. If I can keep my hands off her.
Finally, Jacob—after a lot more fruitless effort at gaining Breath Control—made a radical decision, that I honestly didn’t see coming.
He put on the Hoig Skinsuit.
You could’ve heard a pin drop when he showed up at breakfast yesterday, with a new, slippery, green layer of skin that covered even his now bald head, and a horizontally elongated pupil in his remaining eye.
All in all, he looks kind of like a malnourished Hoig with a far too tiny mouth, a yellow Crystal in his right eye-socket and three horns sticking out of his forehead. His face when Loudmouth praised his handsome new look was priceless.
Anyway, he explained why he did it and despite how ridiculous he now looks, I can’t help but feel a grudging respect for his decision.
The hunt for a Major Toxic Crystal is going to be the most dangerous one so far. Going out amongst the plessies in a kayak seems like a good way to get melted away by Acidic Toxic Energy, and trying to swim amongst them at a regular human speed a great way to get eaten.
Loudmouth is not much slower than Kaitlynn and Dave under-Hydrum, so with his new webbed hands and feet and his superior Strength, Jacob should be able to keep up quite decently.
And we need him, because the combination of my Inertia Manipulation and his Increase Momentum is arguably the greatest weapon in our arsenal.
Alec is now the only slowpoke amongst us, so we decided we’re doing this hunt without him. Judging by his crestfallen expression when we decided that, it might just be the kick in the butt he needed to get to work on his breathing.
A loud yawn from behind me startles me out of my reverie. Kaitlynn wraps her arms around me from behind and rests her chin on my shoulder. I lean back into her warmth with a sigh and angle my face towards hers to sneak a glance.
She looks at my pile of random conjured objects and smiles. “A toaster oven, really Emma?”
I shrug exaggeratedly, forcing her head to move up and down with the motion of my shoulders.
She mock-glares at me, then leans in for a kiss.
I reflexively turn away, so her lips hit my cheek, and glance around to see if anyone might’ve seen.
There’s no-one in sight. I close my eyes and curse myself. I did it again.
Kaitlynn lets go of me and sighs. I turn to find a complicated mix of emotions in her eye—frustration, hurt, insecurity—before she schools her features.
I swallow against the lump in my throat. “Kait, I—”
“It’s okay,” she interrupts quickly. “We, ehm, we should go meet the others. For breakfast.”
I stare after her for a moment, before allowing my shoulders to slump.
I’m an ass.
There’s a slight tension between me and Kaitlynn over breakfast, but I’m positive the boys aren’t picking up on it. Guys are always clueless about these kinds of things.
<Still haven’t talked to her?> Jacob sends knowingly.
I freeze for a moment, before glaring at him surreptitiously. He just raises a hairless green brow in response.
Jacob doesn’t count, since I already admitted to him that I liked Kaitlynn. Also, he used to be gay, so he’s like, sensitive and shit, I’m sure.
I ignore his message, in favour of silently munching on my zirot fruit. He shakes his head minutely.
<You know it’s the right—>
I quickly swallow so I can interrupt him. “So, Loudmouth! We’ve got an important job for you today.”
The rest looks up at me interestedly, even Kaitlynn. We’ve discussed beforehand that—for his own safety—we’re leaving Loudmouth to guard on the island, but not what he’d be doing.
Our pet froggo looks up excitedly. “Are we hunting?”
I shake my head. “Well, actually, some of us are, but that’s peanuts compared to your job.”
His eyes widen. “Loudmouth would do anything for Emma, just say the word!”
I nod seriously. “Good. Because I need you to make absolutely sure... that Alec doesn’t slack off today.”
“Hey!” Alec exclaims indignantly.
The rest burst into sniggers, even Jacob cracks a smile. Loudmouth looks confused, and scratches his head in a surprisingly human gesture. Is he unconsciously mimicking our body language? Interesting.
“How is Loudmouth supposed to keep him working?” he croaks.
“Easy,” I reply. “If he stops, just smack him in the face with your tongue.”
“Eeeew!” Alec exclaims, as Loudmouth perks up and salutes me with a dopey grin.
That sets the others off again.
“Oh, come on,” Alec whines. “You can’t expect me to sit and breathe all day!”
I fix him with a glare, then blink, and ease into a smile instead. “You know what, you’re right. It would be unreasonable to expect that from you.”
He frowns suspiciously. “It... it would?”
“Yeah, of course,” I say with a shrug. “You deserve a break every once in a while, to do something... creative, maybe something physically active.”
He narrows his amethyst eye-crystal at me. “Where are you going with this?”
“It just so happens,” I continue, “that you promised me you’d find a way to communicate the feeling behind Regeneration a while ago. Well, I’m still waiting, Alec.”
He deflates a little. “Ugh, sure. I’ll try and work something out. I guess it beats sitting on my ass and breathing all day.”
I smirk at him. “Good.”
Dave’s voice rings in my head. <You know, some positive reinforcement once in a while might work miracles. Alec can do a lot if he’s properly motivated.>
Hmm. Damnit, he’s right. I’m letting my Yin-nature rule me again.
I clear my throat and look over at the sulking blonde idiot. “Hey. I’m serious, Alec. That Skill could be a literal lifesaver. If you could do this for us, it would mean a lot.”
He blinks and his brows shoot up for a moment. Then he smiles. “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
I nod at him. I catch Kaitlynn’s eye as I turn away. She shakes her head ruefully, then shoots me a smile.
It feels like a weight is lifted off my chest.
Then I think about the discussion I’m still pushing off, and the weight returns.
I cut through the Hydrum at high speed, with Kaitlynn, Dave, and Jacob by my side, and my game face on.
No time for any more distracting thoughts and feelings.
On our hunts so far, we’ve learned that the larger creatures tend to hole up deeper in the corner, which is great if you’re hunting for Minor Energy Crystals, but less so when you’re hunting for Major ones.
Out of all the creatures we’ve hunted so far, the plessies—or dirak, whatever—are probably the most agile. At least in Hydrum. However, their signature weapon, the acid spray, should be a lot less dangerous down here, if they use it at all.
Thinking back on Momma Plessie and the jet of Hydrum she first unleashed on me back in Hub Two, I imagine their attack is actually a kind of combination of Breath Control and Infuse, similar to the one I occasionally use.
I get a chance to test my theory pretty soon, when we come across a couple of plessies of the smallest size, without even a Minor Toxic Crystal. They make high-pitched whining noises when they spot us—not unlike those of dolphins back on Earth—which carry a simple meaning.
Damn. These things are smarter than they look. Except for the part where they think we’re dinner.
Jacob moves first. A flash of yellow bursts out of his Focus Crystal and his spear is launched deep into a plessie’s torso. Then he draws his sword and shield, and rushes in alongside me with a powerful kick of his webbed feet.
The plessie I approach stretches out its neck in an attempt to bite me with its maw of nasty, serrated teeth.
I stick my spear right into its greedy gullet. The angle forces my spear out the back of its neck. It thrashes around, but I keep a firm grip on my spear.
I glance back at Dave and Kaitlynn, who are keeping their distance, according to plan.
A plessie approaches them but gets an arrow in the face for its troubles. It retaliates by unleashing a torrent of bubblegum-pink glowing liquid from a distance.
Kaitlynn counters by blowing a jet of Hydrum through those sinful lips, that collides with the pink stream into a swirling mess. Dave follows up with a beam of sickly green Radiation from his Focus Crystal, that clears up the pink glowing Hydrum and causes the plessie to visibly shudder before it turns around to flee.
We don’t give chase. These are just small fries anyway. As soon as they’re all dead or gone we collect our weapons and ammo and keep going.
The Hydrum gets colder as we head deeper into the corner, though never as cold as the corner with the hermit crabs. It also gets busier, and we have to fight off assaults from more and more plessies, including medium-sized ones with rows of spikes on their back.
Those are significantly more challenging to take down, but by the time we get close to the corner we’ve still collected two Minor Toxic Crystals.
Along the way, we also spot some head-sized, light-pink eggs hidden in pockets in otherwise solid rocks. Dave suggests the pockets may have been bitten out with acid. Alec would probably love for us to bring some of those eggs back, but since we had to prioritize speed, we haven’t much in terms of bag space.
I try to memorize the places we find them, so we can pick some up on the way back. I just hope they’re not too Toxic for the rest, cause I’d kill for a decent omelette.
We’re taking a break up on a rocky outcrop when Jacob points it out. A vague silhouette, not unlike what I imagine the loch-ness monster might look like, lazily drifting by in the distance.
“Everybody ready?” I ask quietly.
Tense jaws and determined nods meet my gaze.
“Okay. Let’s do this.”
We dive into the Hydrum soundlessly, and—except for Jacob—form up our tails. My heart is beating in my throat as we approach, hoping to catch it off-guard from below.
Unfortunately, before we even get beneath it, a couple of smaller plessies intercept us, loudly whining ‘food!’
Swearing internally, I sweep forward and stab my spear right into one’s skull. Unfortunately, the damage is done.
The elephant-sized plessie stirs. Its huge head bursts into the Hydrum from above, giving me my first good look at the Major Toxic Crystal in its forehead. It spots us and lets out a low rumbling whine.
Good news, everyone!
Aside from US dollars, Patreon now also excepts euros and pounds sterling, to make it easier for people from Europe to support creators ^^
To celebrate, (though, truthfully, I was planning this anyway :p) I'll be releasing an extra chapter for my Patrons next Sunday, which will bring the total amount of chapters one can read ahead up to:
Two for the two-dollar tier
Five for the five-dollar tier
Nine for the ten-dollar tier
I'm trying to keep things more or less balanced, as you can see, so the next extra chapter will be exclusive to the third tier and up ^^
If you're interested in supporting me as an author and/or reading ahead, you can hit this big orange button and go check it out.
Thanks for reading! ^^